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The Source

Mapping the Galicia Rift off Spain - Thu, 06/06/2013 - 07:07
Our fourth (and final) gun array was deployed last night!! This means that all of the hard work that the crew has performed (with our help, of course) will begin to pay off as the data streams in while we traverse east along the western most extension.

Marine reflection seismology involves actively generating soundwaves (rather than waiting for earthquakes as in many other types of seismology). The ideal seismic source is as close to a “spike” as possible. Sound waves from the source travel into the Earth, where they reflect off sedimentary layers as well as hard-rock surfaces. The returning reflections are recorded by over a thousand hydrophones (underwater microphones that gauge pressure changes created by the reflected seismic waves) in the streamers that we have been deploying for the last four days.

The source consists of a series of air guns of varying sizes, which are hung at a depth of 9m (~30 feet) below large inflatable tubes. The tubes are 60m (~200 feet) long and each has 9 active air guns (10 with one to spare). In our case there are two sets of air guns being towed 150m (~500 feet) behind the ship, that alternately fire. To create a strong source that is as spike-like as possible, the guns are carefully arranged and fire almost simultaneously. The air is released from the chamber of the air gun, creating a 3300 cubic inch bubble pulse, which collapses to create the sound waves.
Orientation of the streamer and gun arrays being towed by R/V Langseth.
The red circles indicate the location of the gun arrays.
We are making sound in the ocean, where many mammals use sound to communicate and hunt for food. In order to ensure we are operating responsibly and minimizing our impact on mammals, we have five Protected Species Observers (PSO’s) onboard who both watch and listen for (from the observation deck in Donna’s previous post) any marine mammal that comes close to the ship. If any are spotted or heard within a specified radius around the ship, we power down the guns until they leave the area.

James Gibson

Langseth: The paravanes are out!

Mapping the Galicia Rift off Spain - Tue, 06/04/2013 - 00:24
Most of the science team came out on deck this afternoon to watch the starboard-side paravane deployed in relatively calm waters under partly cloudy skies. The technical and engineering crew proceeded slowly and carefully through the deployment procedure, and after about a couple of hours the paravane and attached streamer were over 300 m off the starboard side of the Langseth.

The second paravane went in the water at 22:00 this evening, and streamer 2 is currently being uncoiled into the water behind the ship. Despite a few delays, we are making good progress!

Marianne Karplus
4th June

A Tale of Sea Ice, Algae and the Arctic

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Wed, 05/29/2013 - 16:12
Andy Juhl measures and creates a temperature profile for each core drilled from the ice.

Andy Juhl measures and creates a temperature profile for each core drilled from the ice.

I returned to New York on Monday, but Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack remain working in Barrow, Alaska for another week. They’ll continue to collect data and samples in a race against deteriorating Arctic sea ice conditions as the onset of summer causes the ice to thin and break up. Even in the two weeks I stayed in Barrow the ice changed dramatically, shifting from a snow-covered ice pack to a nearly snow-free ice pack, covered in cracks and increasingly large melt ponds. An animation from the May 23 Barrow sea ice radar reveals just how quickly shorefast sea ice can change. Soon the ice will be deemed unsafe for travel by snow machine and spring fieldwork conducted on the ice will end.

Our team’s research in Barrow is just one part in the long process of studying and answering questions about algae growing in and under Arctic sea ice and its role in the marine ecosystem. And, it’s a process that does not necessarily have a defined end — investigating the natural world always leads to more questions. From fieldwork, where observations are made and data gathered, new questions arise, new hypotheses are put forward and new ways of collecting data are developed. This work leads to further experiments where new data and samples are collected, observations are made, analyses performed and results interpreted. Some of the findings will challenge existing hypotheses, leading to their modification, which starts the research process over again.

The algae-filled bottom section of an ice core, ready to return to the lab.

The algae-filled bottom section of an ice core, ready to return to the lab.

Fieldwork gives scientists the opportunity to observe systems in a holistic way, leading to new insight and further research questions; each piece of data causes a rethinking of ideas and expectations for future results. “Fieldwork is inspiring and it’s critical to the creative process for environmental science because you often see things that you don’t necessarily see in your data,” said Andy. “There are subtleties and patterns that you can pick on if you pay attention to observe the natural world. You can’t do that in the lab or by looking at numbers.”

Some people may be disappointed to learn that we don’t have many immediate answers about sea ice algae and the Arctic ecosystem based on our month of Barrow fieldwork. But, scientists don’t set out to study things that are already understood or to answer questions that already have answers, and it takes time to unravel Earth’s mysteries. On this trip, project scientists discovered and collected lots of algae, observed novel behavior by marine organisms in the water column and on the seafloor, and gathered lots of data. The next steps in this project are to analyze the samples and data collected in Barrow, interpret these, write up findings and report these in journals and at scientific meetings. And, in 2014, Andy and Craig will return to Barrow to continue their study of sea ice algae, armed with new understanding of the algae, as well as new research questions to explore.

Our team at work in the Arctic.

Our team at work in the Arctic.

The goal of our project is to understand how ice algae functions and its role in the marine ecosystem, but we’ve received many questions about how ice algae, the residents of Barrow and the rest of life in the Arctic will be affected by a climate that is undoubtedly and irrevocably changing. The answer is that we don’t know, but our research may contribute to future understanding of these issues. Though the Arctic is changing faster than anywhere else on the planet, with temperature increasing and ice volume decreasing, it is still one of the least explored places on Earth. In order to know how climate change will impact this region, the basic oceanographic and ecological processes must first be understood.

As our project progresses, we’ll continue to provide updates and look forward to sharing a video of our time in Barrow that’s being produced by our friends at Climate Science TV. For more information on this research project, visit Our colleagues at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory also travel the world exploring our planet; to keep up with more interesting Earth science research and reports from the field, follow Lamont-Doherty on Twitter and Facebook.

And thanks to everyone who followed our expedition, we enjoyed sharing it with you!

Science, Creativity and Isopods

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Mon, 05/27/2013 - 03:12

It’s near midnight and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory researchers Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack, and Arizona State’s Kyle Kinzler are gathered around a table in their lab at the Barrow Arctic Research Consortium discussing the best way to catch an isopod. When scientists do fieldwork, they enter into it with specific questions and science goals in mind, but one of the joys of exploring the world through scientific research is solving challenges and devising new ways to collect data.

Andy Juhl readies ROV Brinson for a trip into the Arctic Ocean.

Andy Juhl readies ROV Brinson for a trip into the Arctic Ocean.

Meet Brinson. He’s a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) along on our Arctic expedition and named in honor of a foundation that provided Andy funding to build him. Brinson, originally designed and built by engineer Bob Martin, and modified by Andy, is the result of an idea that evolved over several years of Arctic fieldwork.

“We were deploying just this ice fishing camera, but were frustrated by the fact that there was always something just beyond our range that we wanted to see,” said Andy. “So we wanted mobility and once we got that we were frustrated by the fact that we didn’t know how big things were, and that’s when we decided we needed the laser pointers to provide scale. So Brinson has been a multi-step evolution into a simple, but well-equipped ROV.”

Brinson now consists of a GoPro camera and a standard ice fishing camera attached to a frame made of PVC pipe that can be lowered into a hole in the ice. On the ice surface, the ice fishing camera’s live video feed shows what Brinson sees as he travels through the water. Brinson is equipped with small bilge pumps that act as motors, which enable him to be maneuvered forward, up, down and side to side via his tethered remote control. When Brinson is below the ice, Craig monitors the video feed and describes to Andy what he sees on the screen. When something of interest appears, Craig tells Andy which way to maneuver Brinson, so they can continue to get footage of the organism.

Brinson recently saw small crustaceans called isopods roaming around the ocean floor. Andy and Craig were excited about this find and very curious to learn more about what isopods might eat and their role may be in Arctic the marine food web. Once Brinson, and Andy and Craig, saw the isopods, it was decided that our team should catch some, but we had no trap or means of doing so.

Scientists need to bring absolutely everything they need, and think they might need, with them on research expeditions, especially those to remote areas like Alaska’s North Slope. So, when, for example, you decide you must build an isopod trap late at night in Barrow, you’re pretty much limited to what you have on hand: a plastic buckets, plastic window screening, electrical tape, rocks, string.

Craig displays his catch.

Craig displays his catch.

With these materials, a little ingenuity and their limited knowledge of isopod behavior, Craig and Kyle constructed isopod traps. The guys hypothesized that isopods might like chicken, so baited their traps with chicken bones saved from our dinner. The traps were attached to eight meters of string and dropped to the sea floor. Kyle’s trap sat overnight and caught two isopods; Craig’s trap sat on the ocean bottom for several days and contained at least 20 isopods when it was pulled up.

The beauty of the isopod traps is that they worked and project scientists will get valuable data about the Arctic marine food web as a result. “From the underwater videos shot by Brinson, it looks like the activity of the isopods increases after the ice algae exports,” Andy explained. “We think there’s a plausible connection there: the ice algae could be a food source for isopods. We never would have posed that as a hypothesis unless we had the opportunity to observe them and make these connections.”

Fieldwork is, in part, a pattern of observing and questioning, and responding to these with new theories, methods and experiments. It’s also part of a larger creative process that involves improvisation and unconventional thinking. Said Andy, “In the field, we make a lot of stuff out of duct tape and epoxy.”

For more information on this research project, visit or follow Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the hashtag #LDEOarctic on Twitter.

Ctene Sensations of the Arctic Ocean

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Thu, 05/23/2013 - 01:40

One of the goals of Andy Juhl’s and Craig Aumack’s Arctic research is to determine the role of ice algae as a source of nutrition for food webs existing in the water column and at the bottom of the Arctic ocean. During their fieldwork these Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists are deploying a plankton net, a common tool used by ocean scientists to catch tiny marine plants and animals in the water column, to collect live plankton for identification and examination in the lab. They’re hoping to determine the different kinds of organisms active in this part of the Arctic Ocean and their food web feeding connections, or who’s eating whom by testing the organisms to see if they contain algae in their guts and muscle tissues.

This information is important because it will provide a baseline understanding of the connection between the algal community in the sea ice and the underlying ecosystem, and how it functions. Once this is understood, scientists may be able to better understand and predict changes that could occur in the marine food web as Arctic snow and ice cover changes.

A few days ago we caught the comb jellies in this video near shore at a depth of about four meters. Though comb jellies have the same type of gelatinous body as a jellyfish, they belong to a completely different phylum called ctenophores. Known for being vicious carnivorous predators, ctenophores use rows of comb-like cilia to propel themselves through the top of the water column and prey on smaller organisms, such as zooplankton. Ctenophores are found throughout the world’s oceans, including Arctic waters — quite a few of appeared in the holes we’ve bored into the ice this week.

These two comb jellies were filmed under a microscope in our lab. Each one is just a few millimeters long, though they can grow to be about 10 cm, sometimes larger. You can also see small copepods, a type of zooplankton and favorite food of ctenophores, zipping around the screen. Seeing a lot of ctenophores in the upper water column is a good indicator that they are feeding extensively on copepod larvae, who in turn are feeding on ice algae. This is an example of a few of the connections that make up the foundation of the food web in this fragile, yet biologically productive ecosystem.

Click here to view the embedded video.

On Wednesday Andy and Craig answered responded to questions about their research during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session. While the event is over, the session remains on Reddit and we encourage you to check it out to learn about our research and life in Barrow, Alaska.

For even more information on our project, visit or follow Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the hashtag #LDEOarctic on Twitter.

Collecting Core Data About Arctic Ecosystems

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Mon, 05/20/2013 - 13:53
Andy Juhl collects temperature data from a core, while Craig Aumack drills another.

Andy Juhl collects temperature data from a core, while Craig Aumack drills another.

Our team spent most of Friday on the Arctic sea ice, drilling and sampling ice cores at our main field site. For each core collected, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack take a number of different physical, chemical and biological measurements that characterize the ice and the organisms living inside it. Some of these measurements are recorded right away in the field, others will be taken later using pieces of the cores that we bring back to the lab.

Two of the physical measurements Andy and Craig record are the temperature and salinity of the ice. “Temperature is a critical parameter that controls the rate of almost all biological processes in the ice — almost everything happens slower when it’s colder, and parts of the ice can be colder than others. And if you know the temperature and the bulk salinity of the ice you can calculate how much brine volume there is within a given layer in the ice,” Andy explained.

Brine volume is an important measurement because algae live in brine channels in the ice. As ice gets colder, there’s less brine volume within it, meaning there’s less room for algae to grow. Andy and Craig also measure the concentrations of plant nutrients in the ice cores, including nitrate, ammonia, phosphate and silicate – some of the same elements that plants growing on land need. And, as with terrestrial plants, nutrient availability in sea ice is a factor that controls the growth of algae inside the ice.

 the objects of our affection. The brown areas are the bottom of the cores and indicate the presence of algae in the ice.

Ice cores: the objects of our affection. The brown areas are the bottom of the cores and indicate the presence of algae in the ice.

Other measurements, such as particulate organic carbon (POC) and dissolved organic carbon (DOC), Andy and Craig take in the lab will reveal the amount of carbon, or organic material in the ice. In addition to algae, carbon found in the ice comes in the form of non-living materials, such as bits of organic detritus from the tundra that become trapped in the ice. Finally, samples are collected for microscope work so that project scientists can identify the different types of organisms found throughout the ice.

All of this information varies in any single ice core from the top to the bottom, and based on where it is drilled. By taking consistent measurements from each ice core in different locations, project scientists can develop an in-depth understanding of the dynamics of the Arctic algal ice ecosystem – and how it may be changing.

Our group spent Saturday and Sunday in the lab processing samples from last week and preparing equipment, including mounting a camera system on our small remotely operated vehicle (ROV). We’re heading back onto the ice early Monday morning with the ROV and are looking forward to working in temperatures that may reach 35F.

For more information on our project, visit or follow Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the hashtag #LDEOarctic on Twitter.

What Lies Beneath Arctic Ice?

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Sun, 05/19/2013 - 03:38

On Thursday we lowered a camera into an ice borehole to get a look at the underside of the ice. In the following video, you can clearly see the algae living in the bottom of the ice due to their pigments, which they use to harvest light.

These organisms are not frozen into the ice; they’re living creatures that grow and thrive in tiny pockets of brine inside the ice. You might notice in the video that the underside of the ice is not flat, this is probably a reflection of variability in physical conditions in and above the ice, such as snow cover thickness.

Click here to view the embedded video.

While watching this video, Andy Juhl and I discussed how cool it is that there are vibrant communities growing in extreme environments. “One of the lessons that research in polar regions has taught us is that we need to broaden our definition of where life exists and thrives. In the Arctic, we have life growing inside ice, at below freezing temperatures. This means that we know to look in more unusual places for science of life and that’s one of the interesting things we learn by doing this kind of work,” Andy said. “Ice is not necessarily an inhospitable habitat, and on other planets where we see ice, that’s a place where we should probably look for signs of life.”

The second film shows a bit of life on the seafloor. This video was shot near shore where the water depth is about 8 meters, so it’s fairly shallow; water temperature here is -2C. The bottom consists of soft mud and it looks like there are deposits of algae that probably came from the ice on the surface of the bottom (those are the darker areas). There’s a variety of bottom dwelling organisms that live in the mud, such as the isopod that wanders across the mud in this clip. We don’t yet know how large the isopods are or what they eat; scientists on our team are trying to figure out a way to measure an isopod in situ or capture one to examine in the lab.

Click here to view the embedded video.

As our work in Barrow progresses, we’ll continue to post more videos so that you can get a sense of the life that makes up this fascinating ecosystem.

For more information on our project, visit or follow Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the hashtag #LDEOarctic on Twitter.


Ice Capades

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Fri, 05/17/2013 - 06:24
Scientist Andy Juhl makes notes at our first field site about snow depth and distribution.

Scientist Andy Juhl makes notes at our first field site about snow depth and distribution.

Fieldwork is exciting and inspiring, leading scientists to new ideas, places and observations about how the world works. Spring on Alaska’s North Slope provides an especially productive environment for fieldwork. When the sun never sets, it’s easy to linger in the field and the lab long into the well-lit night.

Our team spent about six hours on the Arctic sea ice Thursday, enjoying blue skies and temperatures in the low teens, while making observations, maintaining sampling sites and taking measurements. Most of our time was spent at two different field sites Andy and Craig established near Point Barrow, a narrow spit of land that’s the northernmost point in the United States. Traveling to these sites involves loading up two sleds with all of the sampling equipment, hitching the sleds to snowmobiles and carefully traversing the sea ice on said snowmobiles, which, I discovered today, is extremely fun.

Andy, Kyle and Craig prepare to finish drilling a hole in the ice.

Andy, Kyle and Craig prepare to finish drilling a hole in the ice.

One of the research questions Andy and Craig are exploring in Barrow is how the amount of snow covering sea ice might affect the diverse species of algae living in and just below the ice. A thin snow cover allows more sunlight to reach the algae; a thicker snow cover creates a darker environment. As in any ecosystem, many different species are competing for light and nutrients. For this study, Andy and Craig want to see how changing one factor in the Arctic sea ice ecosystem – the amount of available light – might allow some organisms to grow better and become more prevalent than others.

Last week Andy and Craig set up an artificial snow gradient at our first field site, where different snow depths cover the ice in a small, isolated area. Ice cores were drilled here on their first day and Andy and Craig will repeat this same exercise later in May. Collecting data over these specific time intervals will enable them to see how snow depth and distribution affect the community of organisms living in the ice. This information will provide an idea of what might happen to the entire ecosystem if more light is introduced via less snow cover in the future.

At the second field site, scientists used an auger to drill a hole in the ice, which is currently about four feet thick. Then a camera was lowered into the hole, with a live feed to a computer so we could see what was happening in the sea directly below us. A thick layer of algae covered the underside of the sea ice and once lowered eight meters to the sea floor, the camera revealed isopods (small crustaceans), jellyfish and a few unrecognizable members of the Arctic marine ecosystem.

Lowering the camera into the -2F sea.

Lowering the camera into the -2C sea.

“We do the camera work because there’s no substitute for seeing the ecosystem intact. We need to get cores in order to collect samples, but you get a really different impression of the ecosystem with the camera,“ Andy explained.

Later in the afternoon we searched the ice for a sampling station Andy and Craig used last year, but were unable to find it. The area had become covered with huge pressure ridges, large fragments of ice that pile up when sheets of ice collide, which are hard to cross on a snowmobile. At one point fresh polar bear tracks meandered among the ridges, but we never caught sight of the bear who made them.

For more information on this project, visit or follow Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the hashtag #LDEOarctic on Twitter.

Settling in to Work and Life in Barrow

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Thu, 05/16/2013 - 00:00
The Barrow Arctic Research Center, home of our lab space.

The Barrow Arctic Research Center, which houses our laboratory.

While I arrived in Barrow, Alaska on Tuesday, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack, and graduate student Kyle Kinzler from Arizona State University, got here one week ago. They took a few days to unpack and set up their lab (everything they need to work here must be shipped to Barrow in advance), scout locations for sampling on the ice and ensure that their tools and equipment are working properly before they begin their fieldwork.

Our team alternates days in the lab and days on the ice. The lab space we’re using is a bit north of town at the Barrow Arctic Research Center (BARC), a newly constructed facility where the National Science Foundation leases space for its researchers. Scientists wishing to work in and around Barrow can use BARC as their home base. At the moment the building is fairly quiet as the only other occupants are a group of international graduate students being trained on how to conduct sea ice research.

Today was a lab day, where recently collected samples were processed, experiments performed and preliminary data analyzed. Fieldwork is just the beginning of a research process that can take several years. The majority of the samples and data collected here won’t be examined until scientists are back at their respective institutes, where it can take months or longer to analyze all of their samples and data and then write up the results. But, to ensure that their research is on the right track, a few experiments and analyses are done while in Barrow.

Craig holds a bag containing water from a melted ice core that he drilled a few days ago. The water looks murky due to the presence of algae.

Craig holds a bag containing water from a melted ice core that he drilled a few days ago. The water looks murky due to the presence of algae.

This afternoon I spent time in a zero degree walk-in freezer talking with Craig Aumack, who’s conducting experiments to learn more about the organisms living in Arctic sea ice. Each year, as soon as any light is available, algae start growing in the ice and continue to bloom through the onset of spring and the Arctic’s long summer days. Algae prefer to live in the bottom of the ice, because, like all plants, they need light and nutrients, and these are plentiful at the sea-ice interface.

Craig’s experiments are called settling experiments, and these help him learn what happens to the organic materials and organisms living in the sea ice when they’re released into the ocean. Craig wants to determine the rate at which these particles sink down through the water column; this information reveals whether particles are more likely to be consumed while falling through the water column or once they accumulate on the seafloor. Particles that sink slowly are more likely to be eaten by zooplankton, tiny marine animals, while those that fall to the bottom will be consumed by worms, crustaceans and mollusks.

Settling experiments must be done in a freezer because organisms that call ice home would quickly die if exposed to a 70-degree temperature difference. Though extreme temperatures can also cause humans to become a bit uncomfortable, we’re able to don parkas and puffy jackets to protect us; algae don’t have this luxury. So, Craig replicates the conditions in which ice algae thrive, and bundled up, works in a frigid environment.

Andy Juhl was happy to explain this experiment and their research further, fortunately outside of the freezer. “There’s a whole ecosystem living inside the ice. Ultimately, we want to know what the dynamics of this special ecosystem are and how this is connected to the rest of Arctic ecosystem,” he said.


A diatom, one form of single celled, microscopic Arctic algae, as seen under a flourescence microscope. Photo: Kyle Kinzler

“We know the Arctic is changing very rapidly in terms of ice cover, duration of ice cover and extent of ice cover. One of the things we need to understand if we’re going to try to predict what will happen to the Arctic in the future is the ice ecosystem and its importance to the functioning of the entire Arctic,” Andy said.

Tomorrow, Thursday, we head out onto the ice to sample. This afternoon I received my land use permit from the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, the organization that owns the land we’ll be working on, and successfully completed my snowmobile training, so I’m officially ready for fieldwork.

For more information on this project, visit or follow Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the hashtag #LDEOarctic on Twitter.

Investigating Life in Arctic Sea Ice

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Tue, 05/14/2013 - 15:08

Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack, microbiologists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, are spending a month in Barrow, Alaska studying algae in and below sea ice, and how our warming climate may impact these important organisms. They’re investigating the factors that control the growth of algae inside of sea ice, how these algal communities are connected to other Arctic marine organisms and what happens to the organic matter that builds up inside sea ice. I’ve joined them to document and tell stories about their research, how it’s done, why and what they’re learning.

Barrow, Alaska

Barrow, Alaska

Barrow is the northernmost point in the United States and is situated where the Chukchi Sea meets the Beaufort Sea. Throughout the long winter, these waters are covered with a thick layer of ice. This ice is home to many different microscopic algae, which form the base of the polar food web.

During late winter and spring, large communities of these algae flourish, or bloom, inside and on the undersurface of the sea ice. As the ice melts, algae are released into the nutrient rich waters, feeding plankton and higher trophic levels, including fish, whales and seals.

The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on the planet, shortening winter and causing pack ice to thin and break up earlier and earlier each year. How will these changes impact the Arctic marine food web? Answering this question and understanding how the ice algae respond to our warming climate will inform resource managers and policymakers, as well as local residents, of how the larger Arctic marine ecosystem may be impacted.

Andy and Craig hope to learn how our fast-warming climate and the resulting dissipation of sea ice affect the entire marine food web. This knowledge is essential to assessing the value of the ice community in the Arctic and is paramount to predicting ecosystem-wide consequences to rapidly changing Arctic environments.

We’re based at the UMIAQ field station in Barrow, which provides logistics support for NSF-funded scientists conducting research in the area. From Barrow, we’ll travel across the sea ice by snowmobile to nearby Point Barrow, where we’ll establish sampling stations and drill and remove cores of ice. Samples will be analyzed back in the lab to investigate the flux of the algal organisms and organic matter from the sea ice to the water column during the spring melt.

Over the next few weeks we’ll share stories from the ice about our research, the role sea ice algae play in Arctic ecosystems and how that’s changing, and what’s it’s like to live at the top of the planet. And, if we’re lucky, a few pictures of whales and polar bears.

Building the Team

Peering Through Polar Ice - Tue, 05/14/2013 - 11:59
The Ice pod team in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland including science, engineering and NYANG members.

The Icepod team in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland including science, engineering and New York Air National Guard members.

The Lamont IcePod team is a blended mix of engineers and scientists learning from each other through the design and testing of this new instrument. With a range of talents and backgrounds, the project mixes seasoned field workers with those new to field work; experienced instrument developers with those newly learning this end of engineering; and scientists with countless hours spent pouring over Greenland ice sheet data with those exploring the ice sheet for the first time. It is the opportunity for mentoring and development that comes from this mix of early career with experienced personnel that has made the IcePod Instrument Development Project a good fit for its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.

Chris Bertinato trained as an aerospace engineer before coming to Icepod.

Engineer Chris Bertinato communicates with the flight crew while he monitors the Lidar at the equipment rack during calibration flights. Photo: R. Bell

The Lidar track of flight elevation collected during the GPS calibration.  The different colors represent changes in the surface elevation. The small black 'bites' in the track are where water blocks the return.

The Lidar track collected during the instrument calibration. The different colors represent changes in the reflectance which when matched to the GPS provide surface elevation. The small black “bites” in the track are where water blocks the return. The airstrip is the rectangular patch in the center.

So who makes up the IcePod engineering and science team?  As we work through data and examine the products collected in the first part of our field season there is an opportunity to introduce members of the team and the data and instruments they operate.

Chris Bertinato trained as an aerospace engineer before joining the IcePod team. In the air he is the team’s connection to the flight decisions made by the crew.  Like the members of the flight crew he dons a headset as soon as aircraft begins its warm up. The headsets are connected into the plane electronics through lengthy cabling that trails behind each set. The cabling necessitates a threading and weaving between the crew as they move about the aircraft, testing and checking equipment and switches. Watching them work one can imagine a class devoted to practicing safe maneuvering about the plane while tethered to the electronics system – something like a Maypole dance!

A graphic demonstrates  pitch, roll and yaw on an aircraft. (from Media Commons)

A graphic demonstrates pitch, roll and yaw on an aircraft. Image: Media Commons

Chris is a main operator of the equipment rack and has responsibility for the Laser Imaging Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) system part of the optical package in the pod taking constant  measurements to find the surface elevation, and the inertial navigation system (INS) used to locate or “georeference” the data. The INS is a critical navigation aid that employs several accelerometers (motion sensors) and gyroscopes (rotations sensors) to continuously calculate the position, orientation, direction and speed of the plane as it moves through space.  INS were first developed for rockets,  but have become essential instruments for collecting referenced data in an aircraft, since the pitch, roll and yaw of the plane (see drawing) as it moves through the air can make it difficult to correctly locate and orient the data for processing. For those of us used to flying on commercial airliners, movies and music can provide enough of a distraction that we don’t notice the regular rolling of the aircraft as it responds to buffeting by the air around it.

The INS sits atop the cylindrical laser set up.

The INS is the square box sitting atop the  laser set up. Photo: R. Bell

The cylindrical housing for the laser sits snugly in one of the pod bays with the INS sitting atop in the small grey box.  The laser focuses down through a clear panel, and scans back and forth in a swath that at 3000 ft. of altitude swings approximately 3000 ft. wide collecting elevation information. The data is then fed through a processor that turns it into elevation data.

Lidar image over the airstrip.

Lidar reflectance image collected over the airstrip. IcePod data

The image above shows a swath of laser data over the airbase, and can be used to help explain the instrument.  The color in the image shows the reflectance of different surfaces to the laser. You will see three of the LC130 aircraft lined up across the front of the airfield, cleaned from snow and clearly outlined in the data.  There are two additional aircraft positioned in the middle of the image that are still surrounded by snow and therefore remain somewhat obscured. Trees, roads and other features in the adjacent area are clearly imaged.

Lidar image of a Greenland meltwater channel shown etched through the landscape. (Icepod image)

Lidar image of a refrozen Greenland meltwater channel shown etched through the landscape. IcePod image

In Greenland Lidar will be used to assist with locating features of interest in the ice sheet. The image above of meltwater channels in Greenland will be important to track during the summer season as these channels can reactivate seasonally, becoming a blue stripe on the otherwise white landscape. These darkened blue sections will absorb more heat energy from the sun due to their altered reflectivity (albedo) encouraging additional surface melt.  In an upcoming post we will discuss how the infrared camera carried in the pod will allow us to track the heat energy in the channel both in its current state, and as it begins to melt later in the season.

Meltwater Channels on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet show how the color can darken absorbing heat energy. (Image P. Spector)

Meltwater Channels on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet show how the color can darken absorbing heat energy. Photo: P. Spector

Lidar will also be used to detect openings in the ice sheet (crevasses). Many of the crevasses are deep yet not wide, making them difficult to detect without the assistance of instruments. Detecting crevasses is important as they pose danger for pilots attempting to land and deliver support to ground crews, can be deadly for overland traverses that are carry scientists and support staff across the ice,  and can provide us with critical information on changes in the ice sheet. Lidar data collected in our IcePod flights can be used to help in all of these situations.

For more on the IcePod project:

Out of the Woods

The Broadleaf Papers - Mon, 05/06/2013 - 20:38

By Ana Camila Gonzalez

When we walked into the Sheraton in Springfield, Massachusetts we were greeted by none other than a wall full of cross sections from trees perfectly sanded to reveal the rings.

No way” I say. “I forgot the camera!” says Neil.

We were just walking into the Northeast Natural History Conference, along with Dario and Jackie from the Tree Ring Lab. When I pictured my freshman year of college last summer, I pictured a lot of things. I did not picture getting to go to a conference to present a poster on my own research.

On the first day we listened to talks given by people who dealt with everything from conservation science to birds and berries and beetles. I’ve gone to multiple talks at Lamont, but those talks are mostly geared towards graduate students, so I’m always the slightest bit lost listening to them. This conference seemed to be geared towards a wider audience: I could actually understand the talks. I couldn’t believe it at first. After the first day I knew a little more about a wide range of topics: I can now tell you about the reproductive cycle of a lobster, what kind of fruits allow birds to fly farther during migration and even the life cycle of an Emerald Ash Borer in a tree.

I also learned more about the research process, since many people were presenting research projects that we weren’t already familiar with. I thought there was only a specific set of proxies for climate, but I found that people are continually finding more and more. I listened as someone described how they were using a mountainside as a proxy for climate change, and I realized that one of the great things about environmental science is that you can use the world as your lab, in many cases literally.

That afternoon during lunch we were told to make sure our GPS systems were safely hidden in our car. We were warned that we had to realize that we were now in a “big city.” We joked at our table—all being from New York—about how Springfield didn’t seem like a big city at all. I liked the thought, however, of a field of science where so many people are able to work in small rural towns that they do see Springfield as a big city. Want to know a secret? As much as I like school in the Big Apple, and I see myself living the city life for a while after school, I don’t see myself living anywhere with a population over five thousand after that.

Everyone in the lab was scheduled to present the next day. I was scheduled to give a poster, but Jackie, a Senior undergrad at Columbia, was scheduled to give a talk: we were both freaking out in the hotel room that night, but she probably had more justification. That night Jackie, Neil and Dario went through their talks while I made a big deal over how to cut my poster. Jackie ended up cutting it for me; my hands were too shaky. I must have asked a million questions to prepare that no one ever actually asked me, but by the end of that night I felt ready. “At least I’m not giving a talk!” That didn’t really calm Jackie’s nerves.

The next morning we had an awesome breakfast, I bought a piece of flan for no apparent reason, and we headed to the conference. I set up my poster and less than a half hour later sat to watch Jackie, Dario and Neil give their talks back to back. They were all wonderful, and some questions were asked that sparked some good conversation. Someone made a comment about baldcypress, and my ears turned up at the corners. She was mentioning how incredibly sensitive it was to drought, and I have to admit I got a little too excited. I talked to her afterwards: “That makes so much sense! I’ve been trying to cross-date this batch of baldcypress for so long, and it seems like every drought year thus far has produced either a narrow, missing or micro ring, and yeah, like you mentioned, isn’t it crazy that they’re so sensitive…” yeah, I was a little over-excited. It worked out well, because I had to go stand by my poster directly afterwards.


 N. Pederson

Ana paying great attention to her inquisitor. Photo: N. Pederson.


This is it. I’m standing by my poster. Someone comes up to me. THEY’RE GOING TO ASK ME SOMETHING I CAN’T ANSWER… THEY’RE GOING TO… Hey, so can you tell me a bit about what you did?

Wait. Really? I can do that!

The rest of the poster session went well. I was asked more than “can you tell me about your poster,” but it wasn’t half as bad as I had imagined. There were many questions I could answer, and there were many that I couldn’t. I ended up liking the questions I couldn’t answer more, however, because they told me what to do next. The same scientist who I had talked to previously about the baldcypress caught me off guard when she told me she’d look forward to reading about my findings in a paper. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I guess that’s my next step: take the unanswerables and answer them.

All in all, I learned more than I ever thought I could at the North East Natural History Conference, and walked away with much more than just natural history.  I’m more excited than ever for what’s to come.


 N. Pederson.

Dario, fully coming out of the woods at the Northeast Natural History Conference. Photo: N. Pederson.




Ana Camila Gonzalez is finally out of the woods. She has, essentially, completed her first-year as a student in environmental science and creative writing at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Columbia University and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She has completed her blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis, from field work to scientific presentations…for now. We are happy to announce that she will be working with us for Summer 2013.

Until We Get It Right

Peering Through Polar Ice - Sun, 04/28/2013 - 22:13
Setting up a flight plan for the day. (Image M. Turrin)

Setting up a flight plan for the day. Photo: M. Turrin

When we left Stratton Air Field almost two weeks ago, I recall smiling when a mechanical issue temporarily pulled us from the aircraft and the woman shepherding us back into the waiting area remarked, “Don’t worry, we keep doing it until we get it right!” Today we are faced with just that type of day.  Testing a new system is all about running through the same set of operations until you get it right.”  For our team, this means flying the same patterns over the same locations looking for repeat targets to test and retest our instruments. 

Kirsty Tinto, LDEO and Major Steve Slosek, NYANG review the flight plans (Image M. Turrin)

Kirsty Tinto, LDEO and Major Steve Slosek, NYANG, review the flight plans Photo: M. Turrin

The aircrew arrives each morning ready to fly the patterns and routes we have selected. They are willing to redirect if the weather changes, or if our priorities shift, but we have stayed fairly consistent in our requests. Of course, being in Greenland, we talk about varying our plan and picking some of our science team’s favorite targets. It seems almost unfair to be here and not venture off to the fast changing Jakobshavn or Petermann glaciers. But we are a disciplined group with a specific mission…we need to do it “until we get it right.” The navigator programs the plans into his system and we are ready to fly.



Sondrestrom Fjord is always breathtaking and provides a steady supply of floating ice against a warmer liquid background for testing our Infrared camera (Image M. Turrin)

Sondrestrom Fjord is always breathtaking and provides a steady supply of floating ice against a warmer background for testing our Infrared camera. Photo: M. Turrin

We are lucky.  No matter how many times we fly over the Sondrestrom Fjord, it always looks stunning: the water a deep blue, the ice pieces feathered along the edge where the floating tongue ends. Once we move over the deeper ice in the center of the glacier, we still marvel at the twisting, refrozen meltwater streams that wind across the ice face.

Quick moving ice collapses along the edges of a lake forming crevasses and ridges. (Image M. Turrin)

Quick moving ice collapses along the edges of a lake, forming crevasses and ridges. Photo: M. Turrin

Over the rocky edges of the landmass it is still fascinating to see the twisting rolls of collapsing ice that pile and swirl along the brim of the flat-topped frozen lakes.  The mountains themselves look like painted rocks with their smooth and shiny surfaces.

It is hard to believe one could ever tire of these flights. Each area we fly over is more stunning than the next. Today our flight is cut short. Engine trouble brings us back to the base, but we’re hoping that tomorrow we’ll be back up in the air trying one more time, “until we get it right.”

For more on this project:

Weaving the Data Strands Together

Peering Through Polar Ice - Fri, 04/26/2013 - 21:42
Full moon rising over Kangerlussuag at the start of the April 26th Holiday. (Image M. Turrin)

Full moon rising over Kangerlussuag at the start of the April 26th Holiday. (Photo: M. Turrin)

Holidays vary around the world with their dates and traditions, so it should have come as no surprise that we would find a holiday in our scheduled Greenland visit. Today, April 26, is “Store Bededag,” which translates as “Great Prayer Day,” brought by the Danish to Greenland when they ventured to this island from their homeland. Kangerlussuaq, and other populated areas of Greenland, are a mix of Danish and Greenlandic in people, language, food and tradition. The holiday does not stop our survey flights today, but a snow storm with low-visibility has brought us to the ground. In the end it is a good day to focus on data.

Prior to today we have completed several flights, each with a tightly designed purpose, and there is plenty of data to be gone through. With our newly designed system, each instrument must be tested individually for operational capability and range, and then assessed for the enhancement that comes from aligning the results with the data from the other instrumentation. Calibration runs are also required for some of the instruments. In the end, each flight ends with a stack of data disks which need to be reviewed in detail.

The start of the Sanderstrom Fjord ice tongue (Image M. Turrin)

The Sondrestrom Fjord ice tongue is a target area for the cameras on this Icepod flight. (Photo: M. Turrin)

Each flight has a list of priorities designed around specific target locations and weather availability. Yesterday our target instruments were the visible and infrared cameras, the laser system and the deep ice radar system. For the two cameras we would fly down Sondrestrom Fjord building a set of matching images.

Bobcat camera showing where fast moving ice has compressed into tight ridges. (Image R. Bell)

Bobcat camera image showing where fast moving ice has compressed into tight crumpled ridges. (Photo: R. Bell)

The Bobcat, our visible image camera, showed a wide swath of surface imagery, noting where fast moving ice had crumpled into bands of ridges, as well as where it had thinned, cracked, and showed evidence of refrozen melt water streams.

The Infrared Camera operates at a higher frame capture than the Bobcat, and collects temperature differences from the places where the ice has thinned or opened. The colder the surface, the blacker the infrared image; warmer surfaces show as white. The tongue of the fjord is an excellent testing area for this.


The infrared camera will collect temperature differences at the floating ice tongue. (Image M. Turrin)

The infrared camera will collect temperature differences where the floating ice tongue has broken into sections of floating ice that look like confetti strewn in the water. (Photo: M. Turrin)

The Deep Ice Radar was being fine-tuned on this flight. Following the first Greenland test flight, the system was adjusted and the team was anxious to see the results. We headed up Russell Glacier to get to enough ice depth to receive the radar returns, but with the weather worsening and the winds kicking up, we didn’t go any further than needed.

Steep faced cliffs are carved by glacial ice. Ice stretched down this rock face in thin ribbons. (Image M. Turrin)

Steep faced Greenlandic cliffs are carved by glacial ice. Ice ribbons stretch down this rock face, carving deeper ridges that may some day be waterfalls. In order to get to the deeper ice, we needed to fly away from the mountain ring that circles Greenland like a pointed crown. (Photo: M. Turrin)


LIDAR calibrations (shown in the monitor) can be like riding a roller coaster - some love it and some don't! (Image M. Turrin

LIDAR calibrations (shown in the monitor) can be like riding a roller coaster – some love it and some don’t! (Photo: M. Turrin

The LIDAR (Laser Imaging Detection And Ranging) testing was our last test of the day. Designed to give us surface elevation, with repeat use it can show change in ice surface elevation over time. In order to show small change in ice elevation, a very tight accuracy is needed, on the order of 10 cms. The LIDAR calibration was designed as a gridded pattern of 4 by 4 lines flown at 170 knots of air speed. Calibration flights can be bumpy and twisty, as the plane will roll with the turns needed to create the pattern. The 20-knot headwinds cause some additional turbulence, but the full eight passes are completed before a return to the airfield.

For more on Icepod:

An Ice Landing

Peering Through Polar Ice - Thu, 04/25/2013 - 07:18
up a GPS at Kangerlussuaq airstrip. L-R Nick Frearson, Margie Turrin, Kirsty Tinto, LDEO (Image R. Bell)

Setting up a GPS at Kangerlussuaq airstrip. L-R Nick Frearson, Margie Turrin, Kirsty Tinto, LDEO (Photo: R. Bell)

Half of the people lining the walls of the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support (KISS) building are waiting to go north to the top of the ice sheet at Summit Camp, and the other half are waiting to go east to the top of the ice sheet at Raven Camp. The science and support teams have been ready and waiting for several days now, hoping for a break in the weather up on the ice sheet.

Ice sheets are large enough that they can create their own weather. Large mountains of ice several miles thick, they stretch into higher elevations and gather the clouds around them. The sunny but cold weather (-21 to -9 degrees C) is a tease to the group ready each morning and waiting for clearance, day after day.

Kangerlussuaq, Greenland weather (credit

Kangerlussuaq, Greenland weather (credit

For the Icepod team the waiting is just as difficult. A series of flight options have been drafted, but with the target of getting equipment and teams out to the camps, our flights are shifted for the moment to “piggybacks” with other flight missions. Piggybacks are actually an excellent opportunity for the project to show how the pod might work once the full system is tested and ready for science use. The project design is for the pod to be fully integrated into the guard’s NSF Operation Deep Freeze mission of supporting science in the polar-regions. In the future, as the LC130’s deliver cargo and personnel to the polar science camps, the pod can be switched on by the loadmaster to gather data as the aircraft transits.

The NYANG delivering cargo to Raven Camp, Greenland (Image R. Bell)

The NYANG delivering cargo to Raven Camp, Greenland (Photo: R. Bell)

Word comes mid-morning that the first flight of carpenters and materials will head to Raven Camp.  There is not room for us but we are set for the second flight. The runway at Raven Camp is a groomed strip on the ice sheet, so the pod will make its first ice landing.

The first morning flight and ice landing go well for the pod, but one aircraft engine is causing some concern. The aircraft is looked over and the engine is cleared for us to take off late in the day with the second cargo delivery. We will fly out at high altitude before we stop at camp to install a temporary GPS for an Icepod GPS calibration. A forklift is used to load two large pallets of cargo onto the metal tracks that run the length of the aircraft and that assist the quick release of the supplies. The delivery at Raven Camp will be a “combat offload” with the cargo unstrapped and the plane moving forward on the ice so that the load slides out the back.The pod team is loaded and ready to head out.

Cargo Combat Offload

“Combat Offload at Camp Raven April 23, 2013 with the Icepod project. (credit Matt Patmore)”


Leaving the plane to set up the GPS (Image R. Bell)

Leaving the plane to set up the GPS (Photo: R. Bell)

With the cargo delivered, several of us exit the aircraft to install a GPS base station on the ice sheet so that the pod can complete its GPS calibration. A cloverleaf design will be flown with 20 to 30 degree turns closing the loops and straight lines between, while the GPS tracks the changes in direction and the movement in the air. In the pod design an array of GPS’s were mounted, one on the aircraft hatch and several on the pod itself, in order to determine the best location for “seeing” the satellites and yet be close to the instruments. The GPS is critical to all the data, used to tie back to a specific point on Earth. One station is set up back at Kangerlussuaq, and the second set up at Raven Camp will provide us a closure point so that we can tie together and adjust all the points in between.  


Nick Frearson and Kirsty Tinto of Lamont-Doherty set up the GPS base station in front of Dye 2, Raven Camp, Kangerlussuaq (Image M. Turrin)

Nick Frearson and Kirsty Tinto of Lamont-Doherty set up the GPS base station in front of Dye 2, Raven Camp, Kangerlussuaq (Photo: M. Turrin)

The station is set to operate. The team returns to the aircraft from the ice sheet and the calibration is flown. A follow-up flight to Raven Camp over the next few days will retrieve the GPS station. Once completed, the team heads for home over the ice sheet for a 9 p.m. touchdown. Although the aircraft loses an engine in the return transit, the day is determined a success with the completed piggyback flights, ice ramp landings and the GPS instrument calibration.

GPS installed in front of Dye 2, Raven Camp.(Image M. Turrin)

GPS installed in front of Dye 2, Raven Camp.(Photo: M. Turrin)

For More on Icepod:


Visual Skateboarding

The Broadleaf Papers - Fri, 04/05/2013 - 19:57

By Ana Camila Gonzalez


“You can do math on excel?” I ask. I immediately imagine a face-palm response, but Dario, one of my advisors, is nice enough to hide it. I’ve collected tree core samples, I’ve prepared them and cross-dated them. Now what?

Oh, right. The Science.

 N. Pederson

Science! Photo: N. Pederson


I guess I never really understood there could be so much involved in answering a question. When I imagine the scientific method I’ve learned since the sixth grade, I somehow imagine a question that can be answered with a yes or no. If I let go of this apple, will it fall to the ground? Hypothesis: yes, it will. Experiment: yes, it does. Conclusion: yes, it will. To the credit of my high school science teachers, it’s not that they didn’t make it perfectly clear that the why and the how are just as important as the yes or the no. I just couldn’t imagine that you’d have to explain why the apple falls with four different figures: haven’t you seen an apple fall too?

Dario is helping me understand how to analyze the data from the black oak samples I have already been working with for some time now. I know these samples. Or at least I think I know these samples. I’m learning there’s more to know about them than I initially thought.

We’re analyzing the climate response, which proves to be exactly what it sounds like. We have recorded measurements of climate (precipitation records, temperature records) and a proxy for tree growth (our ring width measurements!) and by comparing those we can see how a tree population responds to a range of climactic conditions. Alright. I can do this. I’ve made graphs before.


So we’re going to find correlations,” says Dario.

Click on an empty cell.” I start to make a scatter plot; I think what we’re going to do is look at the slope of a line of best fit.

So we’re going to see if the correlation is positive or negative?” I ask.

Yes, but we also have to see if the correlations are significant.” Isn’t any correlation higher than a zero significant? They’re showing a relationship. 

Dario continues, “Any correlation above a 0.2 or so is significant for the hundred years of ring width and climate that you have for this analysis.” I learn how to use the =correl function to compare the populations to temperature and I have to say I’m disappointed. I thought 0.2 sounded so low, but some of my data is showing a much lower correlation, and the data that is significant only ranges from about really close to 0.2 to 0.38 or so. I wanted to see a 0.5 correlation like I did between tree samples within a species as I was cross-dating. Comparing precipitation to ring width gives me slightly higher correlations, a few in the 0.3 range, but I’m still feeling underwhelmed.

No, but it’s still significant! It matters!” Dario tells me to make a scatter plot comparing precipitation to ring-width measurements over time at both sites. At first it looks like a ball of yarn, but as I mask the plot out I can see why those 0.3 correlations are significant. I follow each curve, visually skateboarding up and down the peaks and valleys and noticing that I’m going up and down a lot of very similar hills as I do so. What’s most rewarding is looking for years I know are drought years (1966 and 1954 were big droughts) and seeing relatively low measures of precipitation and ring width during those years. I knew while I was cross-dating that those years were important when I saw how small the rings were, but now I can prove it. Like the apple falling, I can’t just say that because I see the rings are small those were dry years. I have to compare it to precipitation records, temperature records, and, dare I say it, the Palmer Drought Severity Index (I have to admit I don’t entirely understand the mechanics behind the index, but I understand that dryness is a composite of precipitation and temperature forcings).

Dario, over multiple days, teaches me a few more nuances of Excel and helps me understand the ARSTAN program and how we use it to make our ring-width measurements more effective as proxies for tree growth. He mentions this would all be easier if I knew how to use R. I make a mental note: learning R is the next step. If I thought that was scary, now I have to put this information on a poster. That real people will see. At a real conference.

Neil shows me a few poster examples, and the message is clear. Show your data instead of describing it in words. That also means I’ll have to explain my data by actually… talking… about it. Gulp. The North East Natural History Conference is next weekend, but I feel like I’m ready. I understand the why and how after analyzing my data. At least I understand it enough to give an answer better than yes or no.




Ana Camila Gonzalez is a first-year environmental science and creative writing student at Columbia University at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She will be blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis, from field work to scientific presentations.

I’ll Go on a Cross-Date if You Show Me Some Rings

The Broadleaf Papers - Thu, 03/28/2013 - 21:04

By Ana Camila Gonzalez


Ever since I’ve started learning to cross-date tree core samples, I’ve learned I have a type. I prefer my tree cores to be black oaks, middle-aged, with some nice big rings to show me. Alright, fine, I can deal with some smaller rings every now and then. As long as they’re some nice marker rings.

Unfortunately, the trees don’t seem to be trying to impress me.

 AC Gonzalez and N. Pederson

Sensitive black oak rings, showing the 1960s drought (faint bands of wood between the two dots on the right side of this image), from eastern NY State. Image: AC Gonzalez and N. Pederson

I was told on a fifth grade field trip that you could tell the age of a tree by chopping it down and counting from the ring on the outside, which represents the current year, to the inside ring, which represents the year it started to grow. I’m coming to learn at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory that there are a few problems with that statement.

Primarily, you don’t have to chop the tree down. I learned while doing fieldwork that coring a tree does not damage it at all. More importantly however, you can’t always find the exact age of a tree by simply counting the rings backwards. One has to verify the years you assigned to each ring against other samples, and, occasionally, against known climatic or ecological events. Sometimes a ring can be missing, possibly from either a very dry year or insect defoliation that causes a lack of growth on the side of the tree you’re looking at. Sometimes a ring is there, but it’s tiny; so small you need a microscope to see it: a micro ring. And this is where cross dating comes in.

 N. Pederson

A large, Y-shaped black oak in eastern NY State. Photo: N. Pederson.


I sit down to cross date my first batch of samples, black oaks from 2003, with rings I can see without using a microscope. I use the microscope regardless, of course, because sometimes what looks like a ring from far away can actually be a false ring: an “extra” late wood growth caused by an early freeze, early warming, or some disruption to ‘normal’  seasonal weather. The microscope helps me see whether these bands have defined edges or seem to fade, and I’ll know that only the truly defined ones are rings.

I seem to be lucky, however, as none of the Black Oaks seem to have any false rings. I’m actually eager to find some missing rings and micro rings, but I don’t find any of those either; missing rings in oak are so rare that you’ll likely be able to plant your own oak forest and watch it grow to maturity before you find one. This is so easy, I think. I feel like I have it in the bag.

I finish measuring the rings on my samples and labeling them with the years I assigned hypothetically to each ring from my cross dating. Now I’m ready to run the measurements through COFECHA, a program that gives me the correlations between individual samples and finally the correlation between all of the samples. When I first run the program with every sample, I’m told something between 0.5 and 0.6 is the expected correlation for ‘good’ black oaks (in other words, there is a 50 to 60 percent chance that given the ring-width measurements on one sample, you’d be able to predict the measurements on a second sample from the same batch). I get a 0.3 correlation. What could I have possibly done wrong?

I soon find that although Black Oaks don’t usually produce missing rings, micro rings or false rings, it is still a possibility, for reasons I didn’t understand at that time. There is also the possibility of human error resulting from mounting the samples incorrectly, missing pieces of the sample after coring and so on. (Editor’s note: one of the biggest issues dating oaks is jumping from one side of a ray to another while moving down an increment core. Sometimes the rings that are aligned across this division are not!).



What I was doing up until this point was just writing down the years where I found narrow and wider rings as marker rings and trying to find a pattern with everything I wrote down. It was helpful, but I needed to learn more about cross dating to make a few problem samples correlate with the population.

First, I was told I could take a step back and get my nose off of the microscope. By holding up a problem sample to one with a good correlation, I could try and find where patterns aligned visually, and this was usually more helpful than just trying to find the patterns in a sea of numbers I had written down. Second, I was focusing too much on individual samples and not remembering that multiple cores are often taken from the same tree: before a sample can correlate well with an entire forest it is easier to make sure it correlates against the others from the same tree. Finally, I learned that some trees—the very young, the very old, and the trees that constantly get outcompeted for resources—just don’t conform: the rebels, the grumpy old men, the proud nerds. Very suppressed rings won’t correlate well with a series, and neither will very wide rings that signal a release from competition from neighboring giants.  Sometimes a 0.3 or a 0.4 correlation is the best you can get for a sample, and I had to learn how to know whether to accept that or keep trying further.

That first batch took me a week and a half to finally cross-date. You should’ve seen the look on my face when I saw my first correlation in the 0.5 range.


And that was just the black oak.


 N. Pederson

Two, twin black oak – velvet goodness! Photo: N. Pederson.

I decided to continue coming to the Tree Ring Lab over winter break, and at first it was incredibly peaceful. A few days of sanding and stabilizing some pines really put me in the Christmas spirit. And then I met Baldcypress, which made me more of a Grinch.

At first, baldcypress and I were really only going to be a one-time thing. I was only told to measure three or four batches from the 80s as a side project, but after I logged all the measurements the COFECHA results were cringe-worthy. I was told I had to try my hand at cross dating the cypress.

If I thought the black oak population had trouble samples, I reconsidered. While Quercus velutina hardly ever displays missing rings, false rings or micro rings, Taxodium distichum seems to want to flaunt them. My first batch had mostly been false rings, but I also learned what a micro ring actually looked like.

I remember staring at a set of what should have been ten rings for 20 minutes, but only seeing nine. I finally asked my advisor and then watched as Neil marked a band relatively darker than its surroundings a cell wide as a ring. If any ring could be called a marker ring, it was this one. Sometimes finding a micro ring where I knew, from the chronology, that a narrower ring should be, was actually a relief. 1966, a heavy drought year for most of the Northeastern US, quickly (and morbidly) became my favorite year.

I dealt with so many false rings that I felt like I was five and my fingers were all turning green (I’m glad no one ever showed me this; I always felt like a princess). Every time I thought a sample couldn’t have any more missing rings I found more. I started thinking everything was a micro ring.

The black oak took a week and a half. I’ve gotten through three batches of baldcypress, and I’m on my fourth: I started over winter break and it is currently spring break. Of course, I’ve been working on other things as well, including a poster presentation on my black oak samples for the Northeast Natural History Conference, but it feels as if the baldcypress just doesn’t want to leave me alone.


Yes, I do have a type. I like real rings, I like big rings and I like rings that conform. In the end, however, I’ve learned more from the “problem children” than the ones that worked out like I wanted them to. I might even admit that the baldcypress has been much more rewarding to work through.

Shhh, don’t tell the black oak.



Ana Camila Gonzalez is a first-year environmental science and creative writing student at Columbia University at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She will be blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis, from field work to scientific presentations.


‘Are You Using This Idea for Your Thesis Research?’ [UPDATE]

The Broadleaf Papers - Thu, 02/28/2013 - 20:53

By Daniel D. Douglas

Are you using this idea for your thesis research?”

I heard this as I stood in front of a classroom full of old-growth forest ecology students. The question had come from Neil Pederson, who was sitting directly in front of me. He was asking this question because I had just spent the past 12 minutes discussing the intricacies of land snail biology and ecology that would make them great organisms to use for ecological modeling in regards to disturbance. Things such as their lack of mobility, susceptibility to desiccation and sudden change that would occur because of major disturbance make their preferences for habitat similar to the defining characteristics of old-growth. Neil looked at me with the excitement of a small child on Christmas morning because he knew that I could potentially be on to something.

So, you can imagine his dismay when I answered his question with “No, I hadn’t really given it any thought.” I know I winced (at least on the inside, if not physically) after I answered because I had suddenly realized that I could be passing up a golden opportunity. I remember walking back to my apartment that night, thinking about what had just happened. I thought about it another hour or so after I arrived home and then emailed Neil to discuss the potential that my presentation had for being used as a master’s research project. Long story short, we developed a research plan of attack with the help of David Brown, my co-advisor, to study how anthropogenic disturbance* can shape land snail communities.

Microsnails on the Honest Abe – can you find the 28 microsnails? Image: D. Douglas

Not many people study land snail ecology. I had the fortune of working under someone that did, Ron Caldwell, while I was an undergraduate at Lincoln Memorial University. I had become deeply interested in these ignored and overlooked organisms. So, as I entered graduate school in biological sciences at Eastern Kentucky University, I had a fairly strong background in “snailology”, aka malacology. I had been unsuccessful in finding a graduate program where I could continue to work with land snails and was wandering the halls of EKU uncertain about what I was going to do for a graduate research project.

What happened in Neil’s class that semester was really fate telling me this is what I should be doing. A year and a half later, I found myself sitting on my back porch sifting through leaf litter samples, picking out micro-snails, excitedly thinking “I’ve got something here.” It was clear that these organisms could be indicators of past human disturbance.

This research took me to some of the most memorable places that I’ve ever been. Since the availability of old-growth in Kentucky is sparse, my sampling sites were limited. The first place I sampled, Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, was just a few miles north in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky and, oddly enough, a few miles outside of Lexington. It’s crazy to think that a place with trees hundreds of years old exists right outside a fairly large municipal area, but it does.

The EpiCenter, a relatively dense cluster of 300-400 year old chinkapin oak, in Floracliff Nature Sanctuary. Photo: B. James

Floracliff rests on the Kentucky River Palisades in a very rugged, deeply dissected network of gorges cut by streams over eons of geologic time. It also has some of the most spectacular examples of old-growth trees you’ll find in Kentucky, including the oldest known tree in Kentucky to date: a 400+ year old Chinqaupin Oak.

Though this wasn’t true old-growth, it gave me some of the best results I got for the entire study: there was a clear separation of the land snail communities between old and young forest sites. In fact, abundance, richness, and species diversity, were all greater in the older sites. This is also the site where I found the most new county records (i.e. never documented from that county). These results only whet my appetite for more data from different forests.

The next stop was EKU Natural Areas‘ Lilley Cornett Woods Appalachian Ecological Research Station, a small patch of prime mesophytic old-growth forest in Letcher County. It’s bizarre to think that forests like this exists in the Cumberland Plateau portion of Kentucky, due to the fact that our countries insatiable thirst for natural resources has left the region in one kind of an ecological ruin. I was deeply impressed by this forest as wandered around. The snails at LCW did not disappoint either. I saw the same patterns as in Floracliff: old-growth forest had greater abundance, richness, and diversity. The highest species richness for the entire study came from LCW as well, which is something that I did not expect. The evidence was beginning to stack up.

Big Everidge Hollow, old-growth forest goodness, in in Lilley Cornett Woods. Photo: D. Douglas

My final study site was Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve. This preserve is over 1200 hectares and contains the largest tract of old-growth forest in Kentucky. Dominated mostly by oak and hemlock, the forest is very rugged and it had more rhododendron than I care to remember.  Nevertheless, it is impressive. Comparing Blanton to a nearby young forest didn’t necessarily give me the same exact results, statistically speaking, but I still saw the same trend of higher abundance, richness, and diversity of microsnails in old-growth forest.

A phatt, old-growth white oak in Blanton Forest, Bob posing, Merril coring. Photo: N. Pederson

You may be asking, “What does this all mean” or, “Well, he found that there is better habitat for these organisms in undisturbed forests. That’s doesn’t really seem novel.” In reality, this is novel. Better, it is important.

First, I documented that a minimum of several decades, if not more than a century, is needed for land snail populations to recover to a point that resembles what their assemblages looked like before human disturbance. As an important part of forested ecosystems in terms of nutrient cycling, organic material decomposition, calcium sequestration, and food sources for many other animals, it is vital that we know things like this so that we can better manage our forests for everything that lives there, starting from the ground up. Second, all of you must know that everything in an ecosystem is interconnected and, once one thing is removed, it can have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem. Better management practices will help us maintain ecological integrity of forests. Third, my findings also indicate the need for locating and protecting remnants of old-growth forests. As I have shown, old forests, whether true old-growth or lightly logged by humans a century or more ago, are biodiversity hotspots and therefore deserve protection beyond their representation of how complex forests are at great ages. And finally, my findings also indicate that land snails have great potential for being used as indicators of old-growth. This is something that many scientists, especially citizen scientists, have been chasing after for decades.

For myself personally? This means that I have a lot more work to do. Despite the fact that there are people out there that study land snails, they remain poorly understood. I feel as if it is my job to bridge that gap in the knowledge. I also hope that what I have accomplished with this research will open the door for future studies on not just land snails, but other non-charismatic fauna. I also hope that my work enables people to look at more than just the trees in old-growth forests. The trees are wonderful, and we are lucky to still have them, but there is a lot going on underneath those trees that we don’t know much about.


* = the linked article is open access and free for downloading – download away!


Earthwise picked up this study for their radio series on our changing environment. Hear their piece on land snails and old-growth forests here.


Daniel Douglas earned his master’s degree in biological science from Eastern Kentucky University in 2011 studying terrestrial snails, important, but less charismatic creatures.

Recovering ‘Sea Spiders’ and Heading Home

Earth's Tectonic Plates - Tue, 01/15/2013 - 17:42

Recovering an MT instrument.

Lamont graduate student Natalie Accardo reports from the Pacific.  Blog 4: Jan. 13, 2013

The NoMelt project is more than just a seismic experiment; it also has an important magnetotelluric (MT) component. MT instruments measure natural magnetic and electric fields on the seafloor, allowing scientists to estimate the electrical conductivity of the underlying rocks. Conductivity is highly sensitive to tiny amounts of water and molten rock within the upper mantle and thus can help distinguish whether the mantle is “wet” (and thus easy to deform) or “dry” (rigid and plate-like).

To obtain information concerning the conductivity of the mantle, six long-period MT instruments were deployed along with the seismographs from the R/V Langseth in 2011. These instruments, which appear more like sea spiders than scientific hardware, sit on the ocean floor and record electrical and magnetic fields approximately every minute. We recover these instruments in the same way that we retrieve the OBS (previous post), although they proved to be much more shy than the OBS in communicating with us. We welcomed back our first MT instrument on a dark and windy night, and over the course of two weeks we recovered five additional instruments without incident, displaying them in all of their neon-orange glory on the stern deck.

With the last instruments safely strapped down, we have put the NoMelt site in our rearview mirror and are steadily speeding to our final destination of Honolulu. Sunny skies and calm seas accompany the slowing pace of activity during our four-day transit to port.  Behind the boat, we trail fishing lines with every color of bait in the hopes that a tuna or mahi mahi might take a bite. Deck chairs have snuck their way out from the shelter of the hangers and onto the sun-drenched back deck where we, like moths to a lantern, try to soak up every last ray of sun before we must head back to the chilly Northeast.

Today we passed close enough to the island of Hawaii to give us our first glimpse of dry land in almost a month. The crew poured onto the main deck to snap photos and hunt for the tiniest glimpse of cellphone reception. There may be no better way to be welcomed back to land than the awesome sight of Mauna Loa towering above the clouds. Overall, the trip has been a great success. Most of our instruments survived their year of solitude on the dark, cold seafloor and came back to us with a set of unique and priceless data. We consider ourselves lucky to have gotten the chance to visit this remote region of the world, which will likely not see comparable human activity for some time.

Until next time, Aloha!

Santa Comes Bearing an OBS

Earth's Tectonic Plates - Thu, 01/10/2013 - 11:44

Lamont graduate student Natalie Accardo reports from the Pacific.  Blog 3:  Jan. 1, 2013.

Christmas found the R/V Melville in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the last day of a seven-day transit to the NoMelt Project site. In a coincidence that we hoped would be auspicious, we reached our first OBS site late that night. As much as we yearn to be home to do celebrate the holidays with our families, we also realize how fortunate we are to have the chance to do what we do. Many of us began Christmas day with phone calls home to offer holiday greetings to our families and loved ones. Then the entire crew mustered on the upper deck for the requisite group photo, with more than one Santa Claus in attendance. Sunshine abounded as the captain led a crew-wide gift exchange that produced enough chocolate candies to feed an army. The rest of the day was filled with a “coits” (a ring toss) tournament on the main deck, where two young female scientists (that is us!!) came from behind to win the championship and all the pride and glory that come with it. An epic feast topped off with homemade pies and cakes ended the day for most of the crew; for the science party our adventure was just beginning.

We arrived at the first OBS station late into the night of the 25th with apprehension abounding. Recovering OBS instruments from the ocean floor is always a tricky business, especially in our case; these instruments have been sitting beneath more than 3.5 miles of water for over a year. With cold, tired batteries powering the instruments’ acoustic transponders, communicating with them through miles of ocean currents amounts to a whispered conversation on a stormy night.

We initiate communication with an OBS by transmitting audible “chirps” from a communications box in the main science lab to a transducer on the ship’s hull. The transducer acts as a speaker to transmit the chirp through the ocean and down to the instrument. If the OBS is alive and well, it transmits seven chirps in response. Given the distance these signals have to travel, it takes about eight long, stressful seconds to hear the instruments reply. Sometimes there is no reply, and we try again, at different locations, from different angles, with alternate acoustic devices.

Once we know an instrument is up and running, we conduct an acoustic survey by cruising around and sending continuous chirps. We measure the time it takes for the instrument to chirp back to determine the distance to the OBS, providing a precise estimate of the instrument’s actual location on the seafloor. Once we have completed the survey, we are ready to bring the OBS up. We send another series of commands that tells the instrument to release itself from the seafloor and then monitor the distance to it as it rises through ocean. Once on the surface, the captain skillfully steers the ship very close to the OBS so that we can hook lines onto it and pull it safely on board.

Our Christmas Night OBS was successfully recovered, and by New Year’s Day we had retrieved 12 OBS and one magnetotelluric instrument (to be discussed in the next installment). Sadly, two instruments never responded and are assumed lost to the deep; we are likely to never know why. Our success can be seen in the growing army of instruments that stand at attention on the main deck.

We are completing the charge around the perimeter of the deployment, picking up instruments approximately every 10 hours. Soon we will make the turn and head onto the central line of the deployment, where interstation spacing is much shorter and the recoveries come hard and fast. From the Pacific we wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year!



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